Photoengraved concrete connects past and present in Montreal student housing.
Though the site on which KANVA‘s Edison Residence was recently constructed stood vacant for at least 50 years, its emptiness belied a more complicated history. Located on University Street just north of McGill University’s Milton gates, the student apartment building lies within one of Montreal‘s oldest neighborhoods. Photographs dating to the mid-19th century show a stone house on the lot, but by 1960 the building “had disappeared; it was erased,” said founding partner Rami Bebawi. Excavation revealed that the original house had burned to the ground. Prompted by the site’s history, as well as an interest in exploring cutting-edge concrete technology, the architects delivered a unique solution to the challenge of combining old and new: a photoengraved concrete facade featuring stills from Thomas Edison’s 1901 film of Montreal firefighters.
Knowing that Edison Residence would be subject to heavy use by its student occupants, KANVA chose concrete—featured on the interior as well as the building envelope—for its durability and sustainability. But the architects were not interested in sticking to tried-and-true building methods. “Being right in front of a university, we took it upon ourselves to say, ‘We’re going to push concrete technology,'” explained Bebawi. “We wanted the building itself to be a laboratory to experiment with concrete, and to make this innovation public and accessible to all.” Because they also hoped to use the facade to tell a story, they turned to photoengraving, a technique developed by the German firm Reckli. Reckli translates black and white images into grooves of different depths and widths that offer a total of 256 shades of grey. “It brings the building to life, just like cinematography brings photos to life,” said Bebawi, noting that the images may appear and disappear according to one’s viewpoint. “It’s not a stain. We’re looking at something that is permanent, yet dynamic.”
Choosing the content of the photoengraved panels proved more difficult. “Here’s a tool that’s powerful, but very scary,” said Bebawi. “It’s like a billboard in Times Square, but it doesn’t change every 30 seconds. You have this kind of social responsibility [to make an appropriate choice].” Thinking about photoengraving’s capacity to animate a building led KANVA to early moving pictures, or “tableaux mouvants,” and in turn to Edison’s role in developing film technology. When they discovered his Montreal Fire Department on Runners, filmed just blocks away from the Edison Residence site, they knew they had it. “All of sudden we closed the loop,” recalled Bebawi. “Fires transformed the city.”
The architects extracted twenty images from the film and sent them to Germany, where Reckli manufactured rubber liners for use during the pouring of the precast panels. Local prefabricated concrete company Saramac fabricated and installed the panels back in Montreal. For continuity, all of the street facade’s glazing (manufactured and installed by Groupe Lessard) features additional screen-printed stills from Edison’s film.
Depending on the position of the sun, the film sequence becomes more or less visible. Variations in the facade depth form a base and cornice, and add to the effect. “When the sun’s not at the right angle, the grooves make it look like it’s simply an inserted masonry building,” said Bebawi. “At other times, it comes to life.” Other aspects of the building, including the prominent porte-cochère, nod to local architectural traditions. Yellow metal accents offer additional animation “by sort of an urban signal,” said Bebawi. “This yellow is screaming out. It pulls you into the porte-cochère entrance and is expressed on lateral and rear facades.” The remainder of the building is unornamented concrete, in keeping with the quarter’s environmental code. “It had to be a masonry building according to the heritage standards,” said Bebawi. “Obviously, we played with that: ‘I can fit your rules, but speak in terms of 2014.’ It was a great collaboration with municipal and provincial authorities.”
Edison Residence embodies a third way to reconcile new construction with history. “When you think about our relationship to the past in terms of architecture, you can demolish it, imitate it, or contrast it,” said Bebawi. “This building takes a different position. Depending on the way you place yourself, sometimes the past appears, and sometimes it doesn’t.”